If you haven't read it yet, there's a very interesting and long profile of James Patterson in the New York Times Magazine. Among other tidbits, the article says that 1 out of every 17 novels bought in the United States since 2006 was written by James Patterson; he writes up to nine books a year with a stable of coauthors who do the actual writing from his detailed outlines; he's had 35 NYT #1 best-sellers and 51 books that made the list; and he's ferociously in charge of his own career—he has been constantly pushing his publisher from day one to approach publishing like moviemaking, as a collaborative, branded business. If you believe the article, he single-handedly invented the blockbuster model that has come to dominate publishing.
James Patterson thinks commercially. His books "are not high art," he says, and he edits them between hardcover and softcover versions to respond to reader feedback and his own ideas. He cares less about sentences and more about stories, and although he himself reads "high brow" literature (he cited James Joyce as a favorite), he aims to write simple, fast stories with short chapter, short sentences, and short paragraphs. His characters are deliberately simple, and the books are heavy on violence, sexual themes, and action in a very conscious attempt to pull people through.
It took Patterson a while to develop this model. His first novel, published in 1976, was a more "literary" noir novel, with more complexity and less accessibility. It had moderate sales and didn't rise above the normal literary chatter. It took him a few books to get the hang of what he calls "popular fiction," by which he means books that are fun, fast, light, titillating, and written purely for sheer entertainment.
I once saw Patterson speaking, purely by accident, at a local bookstore. It was my lunch break, so I was hanging around the bookstore to get out of the office, and he happened to be there for a talk. So I hung around in the back and listened. There were perhaps 200 people there, and I clearly remember one thing he said: "If you want to write what's in your heart, go ahead. But you'll never get published."
So let's say there's a spectrum in the literary world. At one end, there's authors like Patterson, who write purely for audience enjoyment. They write commercial fiction, and they do it well. Millions of people love it. At the other end, there is Thomas Pynchon -- a book every fifteen years, a book so dense and loaded with meaning that it is sure to be studied for generations hence, but it will likely sell mediocre.
As writers, we have to locate ourselves along this spectrum somewhere. Is the goal to write fun books? Commercial books? To illuminate the human condition? To say something? To gain literary respect?
I've struggled myself on this one. I don't like the idea of writing books solely for sales, but I love the idea of writing for my audience. I admire literary books—I'm wild about Moby Dick—but I work very hard to make sure my own writing is simple, clean and quick. I think books have something to say, but I also love to get my hands on a story that rocks along and takes me for the ride. I thought The DaVinci Code was silly and poorly written with outrageous characters; I thought The DaVinci Code was a nearly perfectly executed thriller. I have no problem linking writing to money—I think anyone who does will have a hard time feeding themselves by writing—but I often write for free because I love it.
So ... where are you?